Cindy Hutson stood in cockpit of the charter boat Priority off Islamorada Tuesday, taking instruction from captain A.J. Stewart on the finer points of detecting the bite of the yellowtail snapper.
"You don't feel the bite; you see it," Stewart told her. "Keep your rod tip low so you can see your line and wait for it to take off. Then close the bail."
Hutson, five-star chef and co-owner of Ortanique on the Mile in Coral Gables, listened patiently, not bothering to remind the captain that she once had stood in his deck shoes in the same marina where Priority is berthed. A few minutes later, she reeled up a legal-sized yellowtail.
Smiling broadly, she sat down and turned the cockpit over to son Justin Cox, 32, and Delius Shirley, her partner of 18 years.
"Justin can do all the fishin', and we can do all the cookin'," Hutson told Shirley.
Tuesday's half-day outing was a bit of a homecoming for Hutson. Back in the late '70s and early '80s -- long before she became one of South Florida's top chefs -- Hutson and her ex-husband operated the charter fishing boat Ace Sea out of Miami's Dinner Key Marina, and later Islamorada's Holiday Isle Resort, now renamed the Postcard Inn Beach Resort & Marina at Holiday Isle. The Ace Sea specialized in offshore fishing for sailfish, dolphin, wahoo and tuna.
Hutson rigged bally hoo for trolling, deployed kites, and gaffed customers' fish -- even while pregnant with Justin.
"When it was tuna season, we'd bring wasabi out on the boat and we had a grill we used to attach and cook it out here," she recalled as the Priority motored past Alligator Reef light.
After her marriage broke up, Hutson left charter fishing behind and began a career importing coffee and food products from the Caribbean. A lifelong, self-taught cook inspired by television's Galloping Gourmet and Chef Tell, she showed South Florida chefs how to use her spices and seasonings. But she never considered becoming a chef herself.
"I had never even worked in a restaurant," she said.
That changed abruptly in 1994 after she met Shirley at a food expo in Washington, D.C. Shirley, whose mother Norma was widely regarded as the Julia Child of Caribbean cuisine, convinced Hutson to go into the restaurant business with him. They opened Norma's on the Beach, and many customers assumed Shirley's mother was the chef.
But it was Hutson, and at first she didn't feel up to the job.
"I cried every single day," she said.
But after a favorable review in USA Today, she decided to stick it out. Accolades followed, and Hutson and Shirley opened restaurants in Baltimore and Destin, Fla., which they later sold. Twelve years ago, they launched Ortanique on the Mile, then followed up in 2010 with Ortanique on the Crescent at Camana Bay on Grand Cayman Island. The restaurants are named for a hybrid orange that grows in Jamaica and Cuba and is a primary ingredient in one of their fish sauces.
"I call it, 'cuisine of the sun,' " Hutson said of Ortanique. "I didn't want it to be specifically one kind of restaurant. I wanted to be able to change it up. It's pretty ethnically diverse. No matter where you come from, you'll be able to identify with something on the menu."
Menu items include mussels in a spicy broth of Red Stripe beer, scotch bonnet peppers and other seasonings; fresh fish; and Certified Angus Beef burgers. The restaurant on Miracle Mile stays busy; on a recent weekday at lunchtime, the only vacant seats were a handful at the bar.
Tuesday's fishing outing was a welcome break for Hutson and Shirley. It was their first fishing trip since a jaunt to the Bahamas last summer to celebrate Hutson's birthday. The aim on this trip was to catch some snapper to cook for lunch dockside at the marina -- a fun respite before this weekend's South Beach Food & Wine Festival. Hutson will prepare her "50/50" burger (half beef; half lamb) at Friday's Burger Bash at the Delano and a savory bread pudding for Paula Deen's Sunday brunch at the Loew's.
"To kick off my South Beach experience with this is awesome because I'll be working my butt off," she said.
Fishing was a bit slow due to weak tides. But Hutson, Shirley and Cox managed four plump yellowtail, one mutton snapper, and a mangrove snapper.
Back at the dock, they commandeered a vacant picnic table, set up two butane burners with saute pans, and toted a wheelbarrow full of condiments from their hotel room. Two kinds of potato salad had been pre-made and refrigerated, along with the "50/50" burger patties, and some aioli sauce.
Shirley, who normally works the front at Ortanique, served as backup to the chef.
"When we do things like this, I'm her prep 1 / 8cook 3 / 8," Shirley said. "This is where she gets to boss me around. This is also where I get 'metro' on her."
True to his word, Shirley constructed eye-pleasing table decorations of fresh vegetables and produced colorful Ortanique dinner plates.
As a small dockside crowd watched hungrily, Hutson coated the snapper filets with panko crumbs and sauteed them in sizzling oil. When they were done, she cooked the burgers, placing each burger and fish serving in a slider bun.
Stewart and mate Tony Golden dug in, along with a couple of bystanders. The dock grew very quiet as the diners savored their lunch.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun